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Austria: Restitution of Nazi-Looted Art

(Dec. 2, 2009) On November 23, 2009, Austria promulgated the Act Amending the Federal Act Concerning Restitution of Works of Art from Austrian Federal Museums and Collections (BUNDESGESETZBLATT I No. 117/2009, at
). This Act amends an Act of 1998, which provides for the restitution of Nazi-looted art (BUNDESGESETZBLATT I No. 181/1998, available at The Amending Act expands the scope of the original Act and alleviates some organizational problems. As the Federal Government explained when submitting the bill to Parliament, reform was needed because practice had shown that the original Act had been drawn too narrowly (Regierungsvorlage, 238 DER BEILAGEN, NATIONALRAT 24. GESETZGEBUNGSPERIODE, at
(last visited Nov. 28, 2009).)

The 2009 Amending Act broadens the original Act of 1998 by

· changing the definition of returnable art from “works of art” in the original Act to “works of art and other movable cultural property,” thus making the Act applicable to objects of scientific or technical importance;

· changing the area of the lootings that give rise to restitution from the territory of Austria to all the territory under the rule of Nazi Germany;

· changing the period of the relevant lootings from March 12, 1938, through May 8, 1945 (the period during which Austria was annexed by the Third Reich) to January 30, 1933, through May 8, 1945 (the duration of the Third Reich); and

· changing the applicability of the Act from objects owned by Austrian federal museums and collections to all objects owned by the Austrian Federal Government.

Now, as before the reform, the overall purpose of the Act is to return cultural objects to their rightful owners if the objects had been unlawfully taken from their owners or had been sold by the owners under duress; it also applies to objects that, after World War II, Austria acquired from the owners in return for granting export permits for other works. Despite the increase in the Act's scope, it continues to apply only to objects held by the Federal Government. Even though many well-publicized claims have been made for art works held by private parties, among them claims against an Austrian private foundation that obtains federal subsidies, the Act was not extended to restitution claims against private parties because it is not clear whether such a broadening of the Act would be constitutional. (Interview by Die Presse with Clemens Jabloner, President of the Austrian Administrative Court of Justice, and President of the Looted Art Restitution Council [in German], DIE PRESSE, Oct. 27, 2009, available at

The organizational and procedural reforms of the amending Act deal with the Restitution Council, an appointed body that ultimately decides on restitution after a claim has been subjected to a thorough provenance search. The Council consists of appointees from several stakeholder ministries and of experts on history and art history. The reform added a representative of the Ministry of Finance to the Council, whose members are now appointed for three years. Previously they were appointed for one year.